This review was commissioned by Lance Garrison over on my Ko-fi account. As of this writing commisions are still open, they’re going for $10 a pop.
Some matches tell can tell you what they’re all about in a single spot. In the case of the SMASH Championship match between Dave Finlay (Fit, not junior) and TAJIRI, that keystone spot occurs very early on. After a snugly contested, but fairly even, skirmish on the mat to open things, TAJIRI finally starts to break through with a series of kicks to Finlay’s leg. This is the first time either man’s been able to string together any big strikes, and it’s jarring to Finlay who’s maintained a level of cool confidence down on the mat. Finlay’s only able to cut off TAJIRI’s momentum here with a drop toe hold that grounds the challenger.
I can’t remember any time that a drop toe hold has felt quite as dramatic and desperate. It’s made even better by an earlier attempt at a drop toe hold by Finlay. The first time, TAJIRI’s able to resist the initial snap of the maneuver before finally being worn down to the mat. On this go around, there’s such suddenness to the move that TAJIRI drops like a stone. It looks amazing, a real game changer in the match all from a move that most people have seen a million times on end.
That drop toe hold speaks to a lot of what characterizes Finlay’s performance here. He doesn’t really do anything too flashy, but he remains imposing and dangerous. The man wrestles like a true bully, never doing anything to impress, but ensuring that there’s enough menace behind the offense that he does utilize. At any moment in the match, he’s reaching for TAJIRI’s nose to try to smother him, crowding TAJIRI against the ropes, and picking at TAJIRI’s limbs to grind him down into the mat.
Everything Finlay does comes with the express purpose of stifling the challenger. Outside of that big drop toe hold, he finds other ways to frustrate TAJIRI. For example, an early attempt at the Tarantula by TAJIRI gets blocked, leading to Finlay yanking the challenger down to the mat by the hair. It’s such a mean way to cut off one of TAJIRI’s signature spots, it immediately comes off as despicable and credible all at once.
Meanwhile, TAJIRI makes good on the promises of his own half of the drop toe hold spot. As promised by that moment, his kicks are the most noteworthy part of his arsenal in this match. They’re sudden and stiff, often coming from angles that Finlay’s not expecting. TAJIRI uses his kicks at multiple points to stun the champion. It allows him the space to mount continuous offense and chip away at Finlay bit by bit.
At the same time, those early flurry of leg kicks give TAJIRI to target in the back half of the match. When he’s finally able to break through Finlay’s extended control in the second act, TAJIRI again returns to kicking out the knee. It pretty much hobbles the champion for the last half of the match. Finlay’s leg selling is a delight here, subtle but always present. He’s not stumbling over himself but his steps are strained for much of the finishing stretch.
This match has its problems though, and most of it coming from the booking.
There’s a moment where Starbuck tries to stop an attack from Finlay at ringside, leading to a brief scuffle between the two that flames out pretty quickly. It acts basically as a distraction to give TAJIRI room to start his comeback, which makes the transition to TAJIRI getting his offense feel stilted and unearned.
Additionally, Finlay does also have to resort to a shillelagh shot in the closing moments. The set up to it doesn’t feel the smoothest at all, but some good does come of it in the end. For one, the close up of TAJIRI selling the blow by slightly writhing and seizing up on the mat is great stuff. Truly sympathetic and indicative of the end drawing ever closer. Speaking of, the final struggle TAJIRI puts into trying to escape the match-ending Tombstone is excellent. Just enough stuff to instill the slightest glimmer of hope before having it snuffed out.
A great match, one where the smallest bursts of offense can speak a world of difference. Kind of match where a single spot can tell the story of the whole damn thing.